A virtual state of siege prevails in Oaxaca City where thousands of military police have occupied the central square and surrounding streets, clearing barricades and detaining dozens of opposition activists. The city’s emergency services are idle while banks and schools remain closed and the city center, usually bustling with tourists, has the air of a ghost town. The hub of activity has shifted to the Santo Domingo church where thousands of activists gather daily to swap news, make plans and denounce police brutality.
The federal police occupation began on October 28 with an aggressive push toward the Zocalo (town square) which was occupied in June by teachers, students and workers demanding the removal of discredited state governor Ulises Ruiz. The roots of the conflict go back a month before that, in May, when teachers occupied the city square to demand better pay. This annual protest dates back twenty-six years and the ritual typically ends with a small wage increase being approved. This time, however, Governor Ruiz violently evicted the teachers from the square, provoking a popular uprising.
Workers and students united to shut down government offices and seized local radio and television stations. The state government ground to a halt and Ruiz has gone into hiding, communicating through paid announcements in the press.
“The conflict in Oaxaca is almost over,” announced Ruiz on Friday–confirmation, if it was necessary, that his hiding place must be a long way from Oaxaca.
The opposition formed the Oaxaca People’s Popular Assembly (APPO), which comprises 200 organizations drawn from 600 villages and towns across the state, all determined to stand firm until Ruiz has left office and with him the federal security forces.
The APPO harbors a diverse range of opinions, from reformist to revolutionary, but has maintained a strict policy of nonviolence despite escalating state repression. In conversation with APPO members this week there was consensus that the time had come to replace traditional political parties with community-based governing assemblies, in keeping with indigenous tradition.
On the eve of the police occupation the teacher’s union signed a wage agreement and agreed to go back to work. The push to topple Ruiz would have continued but the core of the resistance movement was effectively neutralized. On that same day, however, government officials opened fire on a group of protestors, killing US citizen Brad Will and raising the profile of the dispute internationally.
Under pressure to resolve the impasse, President Fox dispatched police with orders to retake the square and dismantle barricades around the city. Mexico’s congress simultaneously pushed for the resignation of Ruiz, to ease tensions. However the plan backfired as Ruiz refused to step down and appears determined to hang on until the bitter end.
The governor represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 until 2000, combining populism with repression. In recent years the PRI has seen its power base eroded around the country, but Oaxaca, where the party has governed uninterruptedly for seventy-seven years, remains a significant fiefdom.
The situation is further complicated by the upcoming handover of presidential power to Felipe Calderón on December 1. Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) needs PRI support to govern effectively in congress and legitimize its candidate’s feeble electoral victory. It is believed that Ruiz has demanded the PAN support him in return for PRI cooperation in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the military police have failed to crush the resistance movement. Indeed it is the federal police themselves who now look surrounded and isolated as they camp out in the square. In a dynamic new tactic protestors surge toward the square, chanting slogans and testing defenses at different entry points.
According to internal security documents, the police mission comprises three phases; the retaking of the square and clearing of all major barricades; the seizure of occupied radio and TV stations; and a final phase in which arrest warrants would be served on 200 APPO members and a major clampdown imposed to dampen resistance efforts.
The square was retaken last weekend in a day of violence which saw three people killed, dozens more injured and at least fifty people detained. The APPO militants abandoned barricades rather than clash with heavily armed police, but for every dismantled barricade three more appeared at significant intersections across the city.
On Thursday police engaged in running battles with protestors outside the university campus, where several people were snatched by police and taken by helicopter to a nearby airbase. The local police have also set up a “safe house” opposite a soft drink warehouse, where neighbors have reported cries of torture from “ghost” detainees yet to be formally charged or processed through the courts. There are now seventy-nine prisoners and thirty-seven “disappeared” citizens, sparking a desperate search by concerned relatives.
The authorities believed that by clearing the square, a potent symbol of APPO power, the movement would lose its focus. However, the repression has only multiplied the resistance as students shut down university faculties across Mexico and Zapatista rebels closed down the Panamerican Highway near Guatemala. Radio Universidad, playing a vital role in coordinating APPO activities, has been broadcasting hundreds of declarations of support from around the world.
By the end of the week President Fox had declared that he was leaving the Oaxaca conflict to his successor, Felipe Calderón. At a meeting with stockbrokers this week, Calderón outlined his future strategy for guaranteeing security around the country; “Will it be easy?” he reflected, “No…this is a problem which will take time, money and very probably it will cost more lives. ”